In his younger years, before his cancer scare, Jho Low made headlines as a billionaire party boy. The tabloids gleefully reported on his love of Cristal, bar tabs in the tens of thousands of dollars and wild nights on the town with the likes of Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and Usher.
Nowadays the 33-year-old Low, youngest member of the third generation of one of Malaysia’s wealthiest families and head of the family’s investment firm, is making news for a completely different reason: his philanthropic donations.
Over the past two years, Low has given millions to causes around the world: $1 million to Children’s National Medical Center, $5 million to National Geographic, $20 million to a conservation fund and $25 million to save the United Nations’ news service, which for almost 20 years has reported on development and disaster relief but was slated to be closed at the end of 2014 because of financial constraints. Thanks to Low’s gift, the news operation will live on as an independent nonprofit.
His largest gift to date — $50 million — is also his most ambitious. Low gave the money to a project at MD Anderson Cancer Center, the renowned facility that is part of the University of Texas medical system, to try to transform the Watson computer system of “Jeopardy!” fame into a cancer expert for the masses.
Low says he expects to announce another major donation some time in 2015, so stay tuned.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q: You’ve been the subject of many gossip columns, but there’s been very little personal information about your family in the media. What can you tell us about your family’s background and the family business?
A: My grandfather was born in China and immigrated to Malaysia and Thailand in the 1940s. He had no formal education and had a big break in the 1960s with his business in iron ore mining and beer and liquor deliveries. He did this all the way through the ’70s and then my father took over. My father was educated at UCLA and the London School of Economics and expanded the family business to include electronics manufacturing and to New Zealand and the U.S. My brother and I are part of the third generation. I graduated from Wharton and my brother from Cambridge. We consolidated all our investments into one firm, which is based in Hong Kong. Today we have investments in 50 different countries.
Q: The year 2012 seems to have been a big turning point for you. That’s when you started the Jynwel Foundation and started spending more of your time on charitable work. What events led up to that decision?
A: In the first quarter of 2012 I went for a medical checkup in Switzerland. I had always been having annual checkups but I was thinking of taking out a big global life insurance and needed a full, thorough exam. I remember going into this room and the doctor looking really concerned. The doctor told me I was likely to have Stage 3 lung cancer.
This was the first time I felt a sense of hopelessness. I don’t smoke any cigarettes. I smoke maybe a cigar every month or less. My family doesn’t have a history of smokers. I felt like my world had fallen part. I was just 30. I took the next flight to Abu Dhabi for a meeting, and it was the most miserable flight I ever had. I didn’t know what to do.
While I was there, I shared with one of my partners what happened, and he said you should drop all your work, your health is the most important. He told me that if there is any place in the world that can give you the best treatment it is MD Anderson and that after the late founding father of the UAE Sheik Zayed passed away, his son committed a substantial sum to MD Anderson. . . . So I took the next flight to MD Anderson.
The next six months I was in and out of MD Anderson and they treated me, and when I was finally diagnosed, they said it was actually an infection and not cancer.
I felt this was a clear sign that the next phase of my life needed to be different, and I decided I was going to spend the same amount of effort and thought on building the Jynwel Foundation as I had in my investments.
Q: Your family faced another medical struggle later that year . . .
A: In November I found out my grandfather had leukemia. I was very close to him and used to see him every Sunday with my brother, and he would sit down and give us advice and talk about principles of doing good and so forth.
He was in Penang at the time where he lived in Malaysia. My first thought was let’s fly him out to Texas, but at that point he was so weak we couldn’t do that. So then I thought we have to get him the best medical team and we got the head of leukemia at MD Anderson to talk to our physicians in Penang.
That’s when I realized and felt the power of having access to this kind of expertise, how much of a difference it could make. If we had been able to access these doctors before, my grandfather’s leukemia could have been identified much earlier and precautions could have taken much earlier. But in his case he was misdiagnosed until it got so serious he was at the point of no return. . . .
My grandfather passed away in February 2013, almost exactly one year after I was facing my own cancer scare, and that’s when I decided how important helping build OEA [the Oncology Expert Advisor, MD Anderson’s name for the Watson cancer program] could be to the world.
Q: How do you imagine the program will work in the future when it is rolled out to other doctors around the world? Will it be like a Siri on steroids that knows a lot about cancer?
A: Yes, something like that! It could be as easy as a patient picking up a cellphone and asking some questions about his condition. The questions and data could go back to OEA for analysis and maybe even back to their home clinic for analysis. The doctor could then call the patient and say, “I need more data,” and send them off to get some tests.
Q: You seem to be scaling up your philanthropy very quickly. Is there a target amount that you hope to contribute each year or during your lifetime? And what approach is your foundation taking in determining where to give?
A: Ultimately, we’d like to get to a level were we donate or commit 50 percent of any income generated from our financial activities, but the family is still considering this.
When we make significant commitments we take the approach that philanthropy is a social investment. . . . We believe in long-term commitments — 15 to 30 years. You need a long-term commitment to solving serious problems. And for every investment we make, we want to make sure it can be scaled globally.
My grandfather early on gave back substantial money for social good, especially in his home town. He built a school and medical facilities. My brother and I are continuing my grandfather’s vision, but we felt it was important to impact the world in a more globalized manner.
I always tell my friends I find moderation really difficult when I do something I am very passionate about. When it comes to work, when it comes to having fun and partying, I sometimes go all out. This is my time to take this approach with philanthropy.
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